Hearing loss is as common in the music industry as is the talent that creates the music and the fans who enjoy it. It affects nearly everyone involved whether they are the people creating, producing, listening or serving the drinks during a live set. The great R&B/Soul singer, Phil Collins was forced into retirement as result of his own struggle with hearing loss. I recently sat down with Andrea Boidman of the Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) to discuss how this ailment affects the population and how it is, by and large, entirely self-induced and preventable. Together with the top scientists in the field and federal funding the HHF have joined forces in hopes of treating and curing hearing loss within the next ten years.
Marian: Let’s start by talking about hearing loss itself and what people do to contribute to the loss of their own hearing. What is the impact of it in our population
Andrea Boidman: “Most types of hearing loss are acquired rather than genetic – and as people age, hearing loss becomes more common. Age-related hearing loss is probably the most common, but noise-induced hearing loss is becoming a real issue, and not just for seniors. Recent studies out of Johns Hopkins reveal that there are nearly 50 million Americans over age 12 with a hearing loss, including 1 in 5 teenagers! It may also surprise people to learn that 60% of veterans returning from Iraq come home with hearing loss and tinnitus, as a result of toxic noise exposure. Hearing loss and tinnitus are actually more common among recent veterans than post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“Most acquired hearing loss, like age-related and noise-induced, is due to damage in very delicate structures in our inner ears called hair cells. These hair cells are necessary for transmitting sound to the brain, and once they are damaged or die, they cannot be repaired and hearing loss is permanent. There is a great video on our website, at: www.hearinghealthfoundation.org. It’s right on the bottom of the main page and shows how sound travels to the ear, and the importance of healthy hair cells.
Marian: Tell me about the concept behind the Hearing Restoration Project and what was a catalyst for bringing leading hearing loss research and specialists together?
Andrea Boidman: “As I mentioned, once hair cells in people are damaged, hearing loss is permanent. But 25 years ago we learned that chickens, most birds and actually most animals except for adult mammals, spontaneously regenerate their inner ear hair cells. This means that when they sustain damage to their hair cells, the cells are repaired and normal hearing is restored. We’ve been working on ways to translate what we know about chickens and birds to people to effectively cure hearing loss by regenerating the inner ear hair cells in human ears. A year ago we launched the Hearing Restoration Project (HRP), which is a consortium of 14 senior scientists organized and funded by Hearing Health Foundation. The consortium developed a Strategic Research Plan to guide the HRP, and works collaboratively on multi-institutional projects to expedite the timeline to a regenerative cure for hearing loss.”
“For too many years bio-medical research has been conducted in relative isolation, one researcher or one institution working alone to tackle a major health issue. We developed the HRP consortium model to accelerate the path to a cure by eliminating repetitive work and fostering cooperation among scientists rather than competition. This approach allows the group to leverage work across species and techniques in a much more efficient manner as each researcher shares data and expertise with the group.”
“Many people ask us “why now?” in terms of launching the HRP, and there are actually a number of reasons. We have much more sophisticated tools available today. As one example, huge advances in bioinformatics allows us to piece together the chemical composition of huge amounts of DNA extremely quickly. In 1988, it took 3 years to sequence 8,000 building blocks of DNA; by comparison, today we can sequence 10 billion building blocks in 5 days! All of our researchers are also funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders (NIDCD), but federal research funding is always in jeopardy and essentially our HRP consortium members compete with each other for already-scarce funding. With the HRP, we have a new model for conducting hearing research.”
Marian: What are the projects and tools you are using to research a cure for hearing loss and specifically what are your leads and findings to date?
Andrea Boidman: “I mentioned sequencing, above. The first phase of our Strategic Research Plan involves comparing the genomes of animals that regenerate their hair cells, like chickens, neonatal mice (up until they are 14 days old), and zebrafish, and looking for common denominators. The first four projects we are funding, abstracts for which can be found at this site: https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/hrp-consortium-projects. Researchers estimate that with current levels of funding in hearing science by the NIH and other funders and without the Hearing Restoration Project consortium, it will take 50 years to achieve human inner ear restoration. But today, we have the opportunity through HRP to accelerate the research and shorten the time for discovery to 10 years or even less. The first round of projects commenced just this past spring, but researchers on one of the projects will be presenting initial findings at the premiere professional conference for hearing researchers this February.”
“Independently of the HRP, our consortium members are working in exciting areas including stem cells and genetics, and have all published extensively on regeneration. We also regularly publish updates on the Hearing Restoration Project, including more in-depth profiles of each project, in our free quarterly magazine, Hearing Health. It’s also available on our website: https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/hearing-health-magazine.”
Marian: What are some simple preventive measure music fans and the public in general should do to protect their hearing?
Andrea Boidman: “Block, Walk and Turn! Our Safe and Sound prevention program advocates three ways to fight back against excessive noise:
Block the noise by wearing earplugs or protective earmuffs, like those used by airport or lawn service workers. Noise-cancelling headphones are great when listening to music since they eliminate environmental noise which lets you turn the volume lower (so you don’t have to cover up the external noise by making the music louder). “Musicians’ earplugs” such as those by Etymotic are great at a live concert, as they help protect your hearing but also don’t muffle the sound of the music. You can get a great pair for under $15 online.
Walk away from loud noises or limit time spent in noisy environments.
Turn down the sound – if it’s under your control – on the growing number of tools, toys, and gadgets that add to the increasing noise level of daily life.”
Marian: Specifically for music fans and listeners can you describe what loud music, a concert or headphones due to damage hearing and explain why the ringing in our ears occur during or after a concert?
Andrea Boidman: “This is so common, and also so misunderstood. That ringing after a concert is a result of damage to the hair cells, which can lead to a permanent hearing loss. Sometimes we are able to compensate and the ringing is temporary, but the damage is permanent and will compound over time, leading to a noticeable (by the person affected, of course) hearing loss. If you leave a concert and your ears are ringing, the volume was too loud and the duration too long.”
“We actually created a bookmark to answer the question, “How loud is too loud?” It lists the decibel level (a decibel is a measure of sound) for common sounds and how long you can be exposed to them before damage occurs. Basically, anything over 85 decibels can be dangerous. A few examples – a normal conversation is about 60 decibels, a hair drier can be up to 70 decibels, and city traffic or a school cafeteria is about 85. The subway platform in New York City is on average about 95 decibels and an mp3 device at maximum volume is 105 decibels (this may vary slightly depending on the type of headphones used).”
“No more than 15 minutes of unprotected exposure at or above 100 decibels is recommended. A rock concert is about 110 decibels, as is a jackhammer. An ambulance is around 120, and a jet taking off is 140. A shotgun is around 150-165 decibels. Regular exposure of more than 1 minutes at or above 100 decibels risks permanent hearing loss. You can see our decibel chart at: https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/decibel-chart. There are some really great, very accurate “decibel readers” available on smartphones – this is a great way to see if a sound in your immediate environment is too loud so that you can take action to protect your hearing.”
“We all love music, and would never encourage people to refrain from listening to it, but it’s important to enjoy music safely so that you can continue appreciating music for years to come. Noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable, but people need to be proactive about their hearing health.”
Marian: How long does it take the human body to restore or repair the damage done if it is only temporary?
Andrea Boidman: “Hair cell damage is, unfortunately, permanent. The temporary ringing may stop after a few hours or days, but it also may never go away. Some people are more vulnerable than others, and may have different resistances but human hair cells are delicate and no person is designed to withstand significant amounts of loud noise. The ringing or buzzing is tinnitus and there is no cure for it. Over 26 million Americans currently have tinnitus. Once the Hearing Restoration Project is successful at regenerating hair cells, most cases of tinnitus will also be cured. Until, then, it’s important to remember that noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable.”
Marian: What would be some of the techniques for curing hearing loss and would it be something affordable for the general population?
Andrea Boidman: “We are, unfortunately, too early in our research to speculate what the drug might be. It could be an infusion, or maybe a stem cell transplant. There are numerous options that are currently under discussion and investigation among our consortium members, but there is still much work to do in the “discovery” phase, where we are now, to understand how to regenerate hair cells in people. Our challenge is to fund as much research as possible so that we can expedite the timeline to a cure. We know that this will be the next major breakthrough in hearing research, but when we can offer a cure depends largely on research funding.”
Marian: What drew you into the field of research for hearing loss and restoration? Are there any patient stories or testimonials that have impacted your work?
Andrea Boidman: “There are so many amazing people who have helped make hearing loss and regeneration my personal mission. I have yet to meet one person who is simply not touched by hearing loss; everyone knows somebody who suffers with hearing loss, whether themselves, a parent, child, or friend. My own grandmother had a significant hearing loss for most of her later life, and at holiday dinners she would deliberately look down at the table to avoid eye contact and the eventual conversation it would invite. I’ve heard this story repeated over and over from other people who have a loved one with hearing loss. Most people don’t realize how common isolation and depression are in someone with hearing loss, but it makes sense. It becomes harder to hear others in restaurants, and easier to avoid interacting.”
“I am always inspired by parents, who dedicate themselves to helping their children hear. You won’t find a stronger advocate than a parent, and I’ve met some remarkable ones! We recently released a public service announcement at: https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/psa, featuring people of different ages who have hearing loss. These are the inspirational people who give real purpose to my work.